There are three Marys. It’s not so unremarkable in a convent school. Mary McGinty (Amy Morgan) has an illicit boyfriend, Derek, a mod with a speech impediment. Mary Gallagher (Katherine Rose Morley) has a plummy choirboy Cuthbert who fancies being a priest and crossing his fingers when it comes to the celibacy. Mary Mooney (Molly Logan) has singing lessons with creepy Mr Emmanuelli. The girls aren’t just inexperienced, they’re tabulae rasae, and even instructive lessons on the reproductive systems of the rabbit have to be interrupted for prayers. Any questions they have are interpreted as insolence. Tampax boxes are confiscated like cigarettes. When the girls turn to other areas for information, they find there’s little help to be found crammed three abreast in a toilet cubicle reading questionable passages of Leviticus. And when they’re caught, naturally the first question is ‘Is it a Catholic Bible?’
Once a Catholic is light on plot, but big on laughs, and it’s a refreshing take on Roman Catholic issues – an undisputed hit in 1977 for the Royal Court (London) which transferred to the West End and ran for two years, it predates most revelations of the abuse which colours most modern treatment of the Church. In many way this means that though this new co-production between the Tricycle Theatre and the Royal Court Liverpool feels gentle, it has an authenticity, and the humour is a gesture to shared memories that continued after the play and the Fifties setting. Director Kathy Burke writes of the play as a huge influence on her eighteen year-old self, giving humour and perspective to her own school experiences. The words ring true for a production that is funny like watching an episode of Monty Python today is funny – the jokes work, they really work, and they can have you in the aisles – but they aren’t timely.
(In fact, to be a little more specific, this is a play written in the decade following the Second Vatican Council, and look at the decade before it. The distinction is important – jokes about the Latin Mass and the ‘wee black babies’ are written for an audience familiar with the then recent impact of Liberation theology and radical change in the wider Church in a very short time. It is not necessarily true that nostalgia gets richer with distance, and the precision of the humour as written sometimes becomes more generalised or simply misfires here.)
The play is episodic, with beautifully wrought sketches in classrooms, chapels, on boyfriends sofas, and sitting outside the school. The design takes this structure and makes a school revue of the play – the Tricycle is made something like a school hall with rafters fretted with crosses, and here and there almost neon colours that herald the late Fifties setting. Portraits of saints are rendered with rays of the same colours, and the soundtrack is rock ‘n’ roll enough to justify the ellipsis. In a nice touch, the stage hands are even dressed in schoolgirl tunics (still resolutely wearing their headsets as they cart off an altar). This self-aware mummery reaches most of the cast, with stand-out antics from Mother Peter (Cecilia Noble), Father Mullarkey (Sean Campion) and Mother Thomas Aquinas (Kate Lock) but it doesn’t quite reach the girls and their boyfriends.
Given the subject matter’s lightening by time and subsequent repositioning of the public towards the Church and (sexual) education, it feels like this metatheatre would have had to be pulled completely to the foreground to make this as riotous as desired, but good fun for anyone who once drank the Kool Aid is to be found within.